The pros and cons of having a booster back your team

The Oklahoma State Cowboys take the field before the game against the Texas Tech Red Raiders November 17, 2012 at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater, Okla.

College football is back in season. And with it, a new scandal. This time at Oklahoma State University. Sports Illustrated is out with an investigation alleging that -- for at least a decade -- OSU football players accepted cash and bogus jobs from boosters of the team. The university says it’s investigating.

The word “booster” seems a bit of an understatement these days, given just how much universities rely on these deep-pocketed fans. At big-time sports schools, boosters help pay for everything from scholarships and team travel to multi-million dollar stadiums. Managing these generous super-fans can be problematic, says Charles Clotfelter, a professor at Duke University and author of the book "Big-Time Sports in American Universities."

“It’s very hard to control people who are not on your payroll, whom you can’t command,” says Clotfelter. “A good university has to be on the ready to shield itself from boosters who want to have the university’s team win at any cost.”

There are steps schools can take, he says -- like keeping boosters out of the locker room. That’s where some fat envelopes were allegedly handed out at Oklahoma State. But any time big donors help bankroll athletics -- or academics -- it raises questions, says Ellen Staurowsky, a professor of sport management at Drexel University.

“Are we selling off the value system of higher education each time we enter into these kinds of agreements?” she says.

Staurowsky says the underground economy in college sports wouldn’t exist if players were fairly compensated to begin with. A “full” scholarship, she says, can fall $3,500 to $5,000 short of the full cost of college.

Former UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma started the National College Players Association after a teammate was suspended for accepting groceries from an agent.

“I just question how it is that players can generate so much money, and yet even the basic necessities can be hard to get,” Huma says. “It just doesn’t seem right.”

An NCAA proposal to add a $2,000 stipend for athlete expenses has been delayed.


Some of the biggest boosters in college athletics:

John "Thunder" Thornton, University of Tennessee, Residential Developer -- Donated more than $1 million
Don Leebern, University of Georgia, CEO of Georgia Crown Distributing Company -- Donated more than $7 million
Paterno Family, Penn State University, Penn State Athletics -- Donated more than $9 million
Paul Bryant Jr., University of Alabama, Businessman and Former President of the Greene Group -- Donated more than $10 million
Bobby Lowder, Auburn University, Former CEO of Colonial Bank -- Donated more than $20 million
Laurie Family, University of Missouri, Husband of Wal-Mart's Nancy Walton -- Donated more than $25 million
Joe Jamail Jr., University of Texas, Personal Injury Lawyer -- Donated more than $30 million
Gaylord Family, University of Oklahoma, Fomer Owners of The Oklalahoman -- Donated more than $50 million
Paul Tudor Jones II, University of Virginia, Founder of Tudor Investment Corporation -- Donated more than $100 million
Terry Pegula, Penn State University, Founder of East Resources -- Donated more than $103 million
Phil Knight, University of Oregon, Co-Founder of Nike -- Donated more than $300 million
T. Boone Pickens, Oklahoma State University, Chair of BP Capital Management-- Donated more than $400 million

About the author

Amy Scott is Marketplace’s education correspondent covering the K-12 and higher education beats, as well as general business and economic stories.

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